In our final analysis piece on entrepreneurship opportunities on display at the Mobile World Congress 2019, we uncover commonalities of founder journeys from startups around the world, as well as unique local positioning and approaches.Madanmohan Rao
Messaging, marketing, and accessories continue to be a major focus of startups in the mobile space, while finance and healthcare are popular vertical segments as well. Strategies and partnerships of many players in these sectors were on display at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, which recently wrapped up its 2019 edition.
In our earlier analysis pieces, we focused on IoT payments, AI, security, wellness, agritech, KYC, design, and connectivity solutions. See also our five photo essays from MWC 2019 on networked robots, innovative startups, creative marketing, 4YFN pavilion, and government promotion.
Mobile messaging players from India are stepping up their global profile. “We provide a unified messaging API that enables messaging over SMS and WhatsApp,” said Gurteshwar Singh, Product Director at Karix.io, in a chat with YourStory. Most of its customers are in Asia and North America.
“We are also receiving a lot of interest from EU and Gulf countries since MWC this year. Since we are a pay-per-use model, with no upfront setup cost, there is a lot of interest coming from startups and enterprises with tight budgets or quick turnaround requirements,” he adds.
Next steps include a release for RCS messaging and a GUI tool that can help non-developers create messaging user interactions in an intuitive manner. Innovative use cases are emerging from IoT as well.
“We also focus on government aided accelerators and incubators, including NASSCOM and CIBA,” Gurteshwar says. The company is tying up with international accelerators, incubators and government-funded startup communities as well.
Mobile payment opens up leapfrogging opportunities for players in parts of the world like Africa. “Initially, we developed a platform for merchants to accept different payment methods and distribute the main digital services of mobile money, phone credit recharge and bill payment,” explains Anta Seck, marketing manager of fintech startup InTouch in Senegal.
“We wanted to make this solution available to structured networks such as our partner Total, but also independent networks such as multiservice points, neighbourhood shops and other businesses,” she adds. The startup received investment by Total and Worldline (Atos group) two years ago, and has deployed its solutions across Senegal, Kenya, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Guinea Conakry.
The focus was always to be more intuitive, efficient, and adapted to the African context, according to Anta. “Since the launch of our first services in November 2015, we have 1 billion FCFA (1.5 million Euros) in transaction volume per day, a yearly global volume of 335 million Euros,” she claims. This includes more than 7,500 touchpoints (including Total oil stations in Africa), and a catalogue of more than 80 services.
InTouch has a team of 300 employees in seven countries, and plans to expand this year to ten more. The platform is certified by Worldline, a major player in payments and transactional services. Other partners include mobile operators (Telecel, Orange, Tigo, Expresso, Safaricom, MTN, Move), money transfer providers (Ria, Worldremit, Wari, E-money, Wizall Money), and a range of water and electricity providers.
Healthcare frontiers for startups are moving beyond doctor-patient relationships to smart and networked devices. “We develop IoT-enabled medical solutions available via the cloud,” says Piedad Díez Román, Co-founder and CFO of IoT solutions firm Kiversal.
The startup was founded in 2016, and its first product was the Audixi smart audiometer. Its technology enables headphones to have remote calibration. The founders are in touch with potential distributors in Germany and Italy.
“Our audiometers will be able connect to our cloud by using IoT protocols for data integration. Saving the data in the cloud reduces the risk of loss, and allows it to be shared,” Piedad explains.
Their future plans include adding add an expert system (a layer of AI) to improve diagnostics. “We are located within the incubator Barcelona Activa which has brought us many benefits in terms of visibility in the media, support via its business advisors and services like the UX laboratory to test prototypes,” she adds.
The holy grail of digital advertising is personalised, optimised, and predictive targeting. “Our technology makes advertisers’ spending smarter, directly targeting audiences that are really important and relevant to the advertiser,” says Paz Gonzalez Anta, Communication Head at ad-tech startup AdPone. The company is growing in Brazil and Mexico, and claims its revenues doubled last year and are projected to double this year as well.
New planned features will give further possibilities to brands to advertise, beyond today’s classic formats. Current business partners include Google, Criteo and AppNexus. “We rely on their technology to reach those customers that we directly could not. They are giants of the sector and having good alliances with them make us stronger,” says Paz.
A range of other wireless device players are riding the mobile wave as well. “We offer a game-changer device: headphones and speakers both in one device. They save space, weight, money and time to all those travellers and digital nomads who love music and enjoy sharing it with others,” explains Enoc Armengol, Co-Founder and CEO, Switch Action.
“We have a long list of people waiting for the official launch to get the product,” Enoc claims. The company aims to develop customised earcups so that users have the option of changing and adapting colours and prints depending on their style.
“We have a collaboration with SWAROVSKI to make a sparkling collection of capsules embellished with crystals, for Christmas. For 2020, we will launch our 2.0 Kickstarter campaign for our new model; this is still something that our I+D team is working on,” Enoc explains.
The startup has received support from the Spanish government’s ENISA programme. “We also have a group of great mentors specialised in production, distribution, ecommerce, and audio tech, which brings a lot of knowledge to the project and helps us choose the best path,” Enoc adds.
The startup founders shared their experiences and perspectives on what it means to be a startup as compared to a larger enterprise. “Being in a startup, you get to see how an idea becomes a reality in a relatively short period of time. In a startup, you have the freedom to propose and execute ideas without so much bureaucracy,” says Enoc of Switch Action.
“I love to share ideas with a small team and see how everyone contributes to the project. Each decision translated into action has an output with direct impact to the startup,” he adds.
“The best thing in a startup is that the strategic decision-making depends largely on you and your fellow Co-founders, and that can make it faster to identify mistakes, handle difficulties, and take swift action,” says Piedad of Kiversal.
“At a startup, there is no established plan as in a big company – you will have to help create everything from scratch, imagine and develop new things, change and adapt them again and again,” says Anta of InToucy. A startup is a great opportunity to acquire new experience in a very dynamic environment.
“Agility is one of the key requirements – and strengths in a startup. Large companies will never be able to change as fast and effectively as a startup,” she adds. Innovation and creativity are differentiating factors from the competition.
“Finally, in a startup, all members of the team are obliged to bond and communicate. They are so interdependent on each other in their tasks that there will be a natural understanding and alchemy within the team,” Anta says.
“The great thing about being in a startup is the feeling of creating something that can really make an impact in the world,” says Andreu Bartolí, co-founder of sports tech startup SoccerDream, which provides a VR training platform for football clubs and academies.
Its tools help accelerate the development of players’ tactics. Its customers are in the US, EU, and China, and its partners include HTC, the Taiwanese VR manufacturer, which has also invested in the startup.
“The best side of being part of a startup is the constant opportunity to learn, the flexibility, and the speed to create a project from the bottom up. It’s amazing how you are able to see the way the project progresses,” says Paz of AdPone.
Some of the exhibitors were at MWC 2019 for the first time, while others are regular. Some came on their own steam, while others were members of larger pavilions. For example, InTouch was hosted by Telecel Group as part of their Africa Startup Initiative Program, which was launched during MWC 2019.
“With this new programme, Telecel has created an environment that gives exposure and incredible networking opportunities to our startup. It will help to create the ecosystem of African Startups connected throughout the continent that we all wish for,” Anta of InTouch explains.
“We can't wait to participate in future events so that we can again experience all the positive energy we felt in this first edition,” she enthuses.
“The MWC is a great platform for projects like Switch, it allows you to share product ideas with other entrepreneurs, and also with people from important companies. It gives you the opportunity to present your project repeatedly, and to multiple audiences,” explains Enoc of Switch Action. This communication results in relevant feedback and leads.
“For us, one of the most important things is also getting investors interested in the project, and making strategic alliances with startups and companies that might add value to the product,” Enoc adds.
“Our experience at the 4YFN exceeded our expectations: we received many visitors interested in our technology solutions. They were from hospitals, occupational health services, distributors, potential investors, media and other innovators,” says Piedad of Kiversal.
MWC has helped deepen connections with people that only come to Barcelona during MWC, adds Andreu of SoccerDream.
“This is our second time at the MWC. The event itself is amazing and keeps getting better every year. The challenge is always being up to the task, being ready, and feeling super motivated,” observes Paz of AdPone.
The global showcase helps increase brand recognition and awareness for the startup. “Last year we got two big customers and we expect the same for this year,” she adds.
“MWC Barcelona 2019 has been great for us. We attended the conference as an exhibitor and received a lot of interest from enterprises as well as startups. I was particularly excited to meet a lot of startups at 4YFN, it was an amazing learning and networking experience,” recalls Gurteshwar of Karix.io.
The exhibitors also shared hard-earned lessons as advice for founders. “Your big competitors may dominate you in terms of the influence and resources they have, but your agility and outsider status will offset these disadvantages,” says Anta of InTouch. “Focus, focus, focus and be ready to adapt to changes,” Andreu of SoccerDream stresses.
“You need to be aware that the process will always take longer than expected. You need to have a clear idea about the problem you are solving, and high resilience in the face of all the difficulties,” says Piedad of Kiversal.
Teamwork and hard work are not enough. “As a financial advisor once told me, a company needs three things for survival: profitability, creditworthiness, and liquidity. Without cash, you cannot survive,” she adds.
“My advice would be not to burn or shortcut the stages, every company has different stages and you have to go through each of them to get a successful startup,” advises Paz of AdPone. She also suggests learning from those who have walked the path before, this can help anticipate mistakes.
“Focus on solving a real user-need and have a core mission. Once you have that, you're sure of the most important thing needed for your business to succeed, i.e. you're creating value. Everything from scale to monetisation will then follow,” advises Gurteshwar of Karix.io. He adds that founders should not try to reinvent the wheel, or try to do too many things at first.
“You have to be persistent. I truly believe that being constantly at it is key to success,” says Enoc of Switch Action. He also recommends listening to others for advice in fields where they know more.
“It doesn’t matter if things don’t turn out the way you expected, there’s a learning in every situation. Most importantly, learn from the mistakes of others,” Enoc signs off.